Category Archives: Tasting

The Finger Lakes – at last.

On my social media strapline I say I’m “Bordeaux-based but open to persuasion”. So far this year I have been to the Rhone, Scotland, Hong Kong, Switzerland, England and across the US. So I’m easy to persuade. Wine regions aren’t always the destination. I’m often teaching rather than exploring but happily sometimes the two collide.

When I was in the US this summer I finally made it to the Finger Lakes and I fell for the charm and beauty of the region. I have been tantalisingly close before; teaching Bordeaux Master classes at the nearby Hospitality Faculty at Cornell, which left me frustrated by a lack of time to discover the vineyards, especially after tasting some of the wines with faculty members.

When you think of New York, wine making might not spring to mind. Wine drinking perhaps, but grape growing? There’s more to New York than New York City. Manhattan may have been the first place in New York State where Dutch immigrants planted grapes for wine in the 1600s, but they didn’t survive and New York wine country is now well established further north.

New York wine country prides itself as having a ‘new world attitude with an old world latitude’. It’s on more or less, the same latitude as Rioja and is the third largest wine-growing region in the US with over 400 wineries.

The history of wine-making here goes back 400 years but it has recently boomed. 35 years ago there were just 31 wineries but 133 have opened since 2011, wine production has increased by 50% since 1985 and tourist visits are up 85% since 2000 with over 5 million visitors each year.

There are five major wine regions: Lake Erie (AVA – American Viticultural area), The Niagara escarpment, (AVA), The Finger Lakes (AVA), Hudson River (AVA) and Long Island (AVA), and a total of 9 AVAs altogether.

It was the Women for Wine Sense organisation (WWS) who brought me here for their Grand Event in July. WWS is an association that brings together women in the wine trade (and quite a few men) with the original aim of encouraging reasonable alcohol consumption. They now offer educational programs, mentoring and networking opportunities to wine enthusiasts and industry professionals across the US.

I have presented Bordeaux wines to the California chapter of WWS over the last few years so it was great to finally meet members from all over the US. We were very generously hosted at wineries across the Finger Lakes, and judging by their hospitality I’m not surprised that visitor numbers are up.

Karen MacNeil explains the theory of cool at Ravine Winery

For those of you who haven’t had the chance to visit yet – here’s a bit of background. This is cool climate wine region, as Karen McNeil so clearly explained to us in her opening address. She sang the praises of the elegance of cool climate wines (including Bordeaux I might add) explaining how great wines often exist on ‘the edge’ and how their ‘slow dance towards ripeness’ bestows elegance. This was the perfect region to express this elegant and easy drinking approach to wine making.

A range of wines from Dr Konstantin Frank – one of the pioneers of the Finger Lakes.

The area is well known for its Rieslings and now its Sparkling wines, I also tasted some excellent Cabernet Francs, Pinot Noirs and other regional varieties such as Catawba, Niagara and the Cornell developed Cayuga (white) and Tramine.

A vertical if the Saperati variety rom the Standing Stone Winery

The region takes it’s name from 11 thin parallel lakes, the four main lakes: Canandaigua, Keuka, Seneca, and Cayuga and other smaller lakes: Conesus and Hemlock Owasco and Skaneateles formed as glaciers retreated leaving the impression of the fingers of a hand – thought by native Indians to be the hand of god.

The region counts for half of New York’s wineries producing about 175 Million bottles from over 9000 acres of vines. There is a concentration of wineries around the Southern half of lake Seneca, which has it’s own AVA.

The limestone escarpment falling down into lake seneca at the Standing Stone Vineyard

Steep hillsides run down to the water’s edge, and these large bodies of water have a temperate effect on the climate protecting the gravel, shale, schist, limestone and clay soils from the extremes of temperature up here. These diverse landscapes, soils and a large choice of varieties give a very wide range of wine styles: white, rosé, red, sweet and dry, still and sparkling.

I mentioned earlier grape varieties developed by Cornell and just as Bordeaux has the faculty of oenology as a centre of excellence in research into vine growing and wine making so the Finger Lakes has Cornell. This and the fact that the 126 wineries of the Finger Lakes work closely together in not only welcoming visitors to the region, but also technically, and in raising the profile of the region and its wines on the international wine scene.

The View across the lake from the Geneva on the Lake Hotel

Sadly I only skimmed the surface, but I recommend a visit. I would suggest staying in or near Geneva on the Lake – it’s a great base. The Geneva on the Lake Hotel has a gorgeous old world feeling with beautiful gardens, pool and view over the lake. If you want something more low-key the tiny New Vines winery has a guesthouse with B & B rooms.

The sculptural gates of Fox Run Winery

As to which wineries to visit, I only managed a few; Ravines with their Ravinous kitchen in a gorgeous old barn should be on your list. They promote farm to table eating sourcing local products and their relaxed down to earth hospitality and collaboration with other local producers is very much a signature of the region. The café and market at Fox Run vineyards has a similar atmosphere as well as an amazing sculpture at the entrance gate.

Vineyard with a view – Standing stone Vineyard

On the other side of the lake the views across the water at Standing Stones Vineyards as well as the range of wines are also worth a trip down the eastern side of the lake. If you have time, drive all around Lake Seneca and call in at the many tempting wineries on the lakeside route.

Tierce, an example of vineyards working together recommendation from the Microclimate wine bar.

Then call in at the Microclimate wine bar for an over view of the wines of the region. At this tiny bar on Linden Street, in the centre of Geneva on the Lake, the owner sommelier Stephanie will serve you Finger Lake wines alongside the same varieties from across the globe giving you a fascinating benchmark. The wines are served with more local cheeses and charcuterie or if you are fed up with wine (?) after a long day tasting – a refreshing local beer.

The sparkling wine from Konstantin Frank – possibly my favourite tipple of the weekend.

I’m planning a trip back so when you do go, please report back with your suggestions to add to my ‘must visit’ list.


Chasing Chasselas.

In the 30 odd years that I have been coming to Switzerland, I haven’t always taken Suisse wines very seriously. That doesn’t mean I haven’t tasted and drunk my fair share over the years, but I haven’t really paid attention to what I was drinking. I wrongly assumed that Swiss production was dominated by white – perhaps because that’s what goes so well with the traditional dishes of raclette and fondue and I thought naming a wine Fendant rather odd, more reminiscent of a soft-centred chocolate than a wine.

Although I love the way the Swiss restaurants serve the wines by the decilitre in little table top decanters, allowing you to taste a little and then whistle up another few more ‘decis’ depending on how thirsty you are, not seeing a label does keep the wines rather anonymous. Another excuse for my ignorance is that Swiss wine doesn’t get out much. Only about 1% is exported; the Swiss are no slouches when it comes to drinking, 4th in the world of wine consumers, at 33 litres per capita per year, most of which is Swiss so only about 1 – 1.5% leaves the country. If you want to drink Swiss – you must come to Switzerland.

Thanks in large part to the enthusiasm of (and gifts from) fellow Swiss wine educators I have started paying more attention, so last week when Raphael Gross from the Cesar Ritz Hotel School, offered to take to some Swiss vineyards I jumped at the chance.

The whole of the Swiss wine growing regions could fit comfortably into the Medoc but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to understand. The diversity of varieties (over 240 although ‘only’ 75 appear in the official statistics) is mind-boggling. Names such as Petite Arvine and Humagne are strangers to those of us more familiar with the international varietals. Pinot Noir may dominate the red plantings (of which there is more that white) but it is Chasselas that dominates white wine production with 27% of total planting.

So Chasselas seemed like a good place to start, in France it is pretty much confined to table grapes, but its home is here on the Slopes above Vevey at Dézaley in Vaud. Vaud is the second largest wine region of Switzerland (25% of production just behind the Valais at 33%) and the scenery is simply breath taking.

The breath taking view of the Lavaux vineyards. Photo Credit Wendy Narby

The soils are a mix of clay and limestone, spread along the middle of the slope, with a Southern exposure and sun reflecting up from the lake giving ideal ripening conditions.

The geography is definitely challenging – that view down to Lake Geneva might be spectacular but it doesn’t make it easy to work. The vines are all terraced, with walls built by hand by the original wine making monks in the middle ages and maintained ever since. Every thing has to be done by hand, tractors cannot work the steep gradients and even helicopters have been called into service for sulphating against mildew and for lifting the crates of hand picked grapes out during the harvest. More traditionally, and affordably, they use little containers winched up and down on cables, but the work is back breaking.

Help getting those crates of grapes up the slopes. Photo Credit Wendy Narby

Chasselas is known as Fendant when it comes from the Valais at the end of Lake Geneva, but here in the lovely UNESCO World Heritage site of Lavaux, it is known by the appellations based on local villages.

The Fonjallaz family has been growing grapes and making wine here since the 16th century. 17th generation Louis Fonjallaz made wine around the world before coming back to work with his father on their four ha vineyard, most of which are here high above Lake Geneva between Lausanne and Montreux. They have been around for so long there are lots of Fonjallaz in the tiny hillside village of Epesses – it’s a bit like Burgundy – where every cellar door seems to carry a variation of the same name.

The view over the vines of Calamin from the ‘Tasting Room’ at Fonjallaz.                               Photo Credit Wendy Narby

Louis Fonjallaz is a ‘viticulteur encaveur’ growing grapes and making thirteen different wines from this tiny vineyard but we were here for the Chasselas. We tasted the appellations: Epesses, Calamin Grand Cru and Dézaley Grand Cru, sitting in his ‘tasting room’, a pergola perched on the slope overlooking his vines of Calamin and the breath-taking view of the Swiss Riviera,

Louis Fonjallaz and his range of Chasselas.    Photo Credit Wendy Narby

Epesses is popular as an aperitif wine; its acidity being reinforced by a slight ‘frizzante’ or ‘perlant’, malolactic fermentation gives the wine a weight and mouth-feel that balances their floral character.

A closer look at the Chasselas appellations of Lavaux.                                                                    Photo Credit Wendy Narby

The designation Grand Cru on these wines depends not on just on site but on planting density, yields and winemaking specifications. Calamin, for example, is always a Grand Cru. The terroir of this 14 ha appellation being more soil than rock, thanks to an ancient landslide, this gives a more mineral personality to the wine with an elegant mouth-watering bitterness to the finish.

The Baronnie Dézaley range on sale at Obrist in Vevey                           Photo Credit Wendy Narby

The 55 ha Dézaley appellation, is known as the Balcony of the Lavaux, see the view above, and has now been official declared the origin of Chasselas. The Fonjallaz Dézaley belongs to the La Baronnie Dézaley association, a group of 11 producers that sell and promote their wines together in cases of 12 mixed bottles identified by a specific bottle, aiming to increase the reputation of these small production wines. Dézaley wines have a surprising ageing potential, Louis shared a 1999 with us, still fresh but with a beeswax character reminiscent of older Pessac Léognans.

A selection of Swiss wines at the Auberge de l’Onde.                                                                    Photo Credit Wendy Narby

We continued my education over lunch at the Auberge de l’Onde in St Saphorin. Here in the heart of the vines, Jérôme Aké Béda, (2015 Gault & Millau Swiss Sommelier of the Year), presides over a cave with an eclectic and international range of wines but remains an enthusiastic ambassador for the local Chasselas. My head was spinning (in a good way) after a whirlwind wine tour in a glass, of Switzerland from Chardonnay to Chenin Blanc from the Tessin to the Valais.

With Jérôme Aké Béda at the Auberge de l’Onde.                         Photo Credit Wendy Narby

Swiss wine discoveries are not only amongst the vineyards; the magnificent Beaurivage Palace in Lausanne has one of the largest wine cellars in the whole of Switzerland with over 75 000 bottles, and 3000 different wine listings including over 250 Swiss wines. Here, another Gault & Millau Sommelier of the Year, Thibaut Panas, will also be happy to share his favourites from the region and beyond in the feutré atmosphere of the bar or Michelin star Anne-Sophie Pic restaurant. It’s the perfect base from which to discover region.

The Bar at the Beaurivage Palace Lausanne.  Photo credit Wendy Narby

If you want to discover more, come and visit. The association Vaud Oentourisme groups together vineyards, local restaurants and other tasting experiences making it very easy. Swiss Wine Tourism is now officially a thing.













Getting technical

One of the challenges of being a wine educator is finding all the details about the different wines we share in the classroom. Every audience is different but as I am usually talking to the trade they love hard data.

Despite touring vineyards with groups and students for over twenty years, I still haven’t managed to visit all 7 000 Bordeaux producers, let alone discover all the many second and third wines produced by each property, and then there’s the negociant and cooperative brands. Of course, each vintage is different so it adds more fascinating complexity to the challenge. So many wines, so little time.

When I am in front of a class, be it in Bordeaux, Asia or like this month, in the US, having the technical details of each wine: the blend for that vintage, the oak treatment and even details such as picking dates are useful.

As a consumer, this nitty-gritty might not appear that fascinating, it is more the stories behind the wines; the people, the places and their history that really engages with consumers. The trade enjoys a good story too, but there will always be a few wine geeks in the audience that want to know the minute detail. Questions are often about how the blend changes each year compared to what is planted in the vineyard. After all, blending is one of the signatures of Bordeaux, and the differences from year to year reflect the changing weather of each vintage and how the wine maker has risen to these challenges.

Preparation is everything; I am supposed to be an authority after all! But how to find this information? Thank goodness for the Internet – many chateaux now share these specific details in technical sheets, vintage-by-vintage, on their web sites.

A tech sheet always comes in handy

Although it can be quite search to find the web site of some less well known properties, don’t be too harsh in your judgement of these smaller properties. They don’t have the financial resources or the manpower to spend the time and money on glamorous websites – they are busy out there growing the grapes and making the wine! Often an e-mail or a telephone call will see a tech sheet arrive in my inbox.

To learn more about lesser known vineyards, the app Smart Bordeaux – developed by the CIVB (Conseil des Vins de Bordeaux – The Bordeaux Wine Council) is a useful resource. By taking a photo of the label or typing in the name of the property, details will pop up. It is down to the chateau to enter the information though, so some carry more detail than others.

The Smart Bordeaux App

Other useful sites include the Cru Bourgeois site where you can search chateau details by name or by using the flash code on each bottle guaranteeing the authenticity of the Cru Bourgeois designation. The Wines of the Medoc site also collates useful information about each vineyard in the region, including harder to find brands and cooperative wines.

The Cru Bourgeois label can be read as a flash code to learn more about the wines.

Chateau websites are often designed more as a marketing tool for consumers rather than for the trade and geeky somms. More style over substance, although there’s nothing wrong with sharing the dream. Others offer a fascinating insight into the philosophy of the vineyard; Chateau Palmer, for example, manages to balance the dream and reality, it is a pleasure to visit the site even when I’m not looking for some specific piece of information.

The new website of Château Leoville Barton is another example showing there’s no conflict between tradition, history and a modern approach to communication.

Château Brane Cantenac has embraced technology, thanks to food and wine marketing an design specialists Taylor Yandell, with their recent mobile web site. Responding to the demand from itinerant geeks needing to access information on the road, it makes the tech sheets for each of their three wines available with a click, clearly showing those percentages by vintage in an easy to grasp graphical.

Château Brane Cantenac tech sheets – with a visual of the blend.

Bordeaux technology is not just in the vineyards and wine cellars; it’s on the smartphone in your pocket.




Happy New Year!

This seems like just the right time to take a quick look at where my wine adventures have taken me in 2016 and at plans for 2017. I thought I’d let some photos do the talking, although looking back through the images of the year it has been a challenge to choose just a few to sum up the last 12 months – so here’s a go, by theme.

A year in drinks: as well as wine, there was quite a penchant for cocktails in 2016, my girlfriends responsible for this know who they are!

Comparing the old and the new identities of chateau Quintus in Saint Emilion

Comparing the old and the new identities of Château Quintus in Saint Emilion

Bordeaux Bubbles on the banks for the Dordogne at La Maison de l'Amiral

Bordeaux Bubbles on the banks of the Dordogne at La Maison de l’Amiral.

A Medoc Wine line up for staff at PLCB Fine Wines and good Spirits Harrisburg

A Médoc line up for staff at PLCB Fine Wines and Good Spirits, Harrisburg

Tasting the wonderful wines at Eisele in Napa

Tasting the wonderful wines at Eisele in Napa

An intimate tasting at Chateau Angelus

An intimate tasting at Chateau Angelus

Who said the Bordelais always take themselves too seriously? Not the Courselle sisters at Chateau Theuiley

Who said the Bordelais always take themselves too seriously? Not the Courselle sisters at Chateau Theuiley.

A beautiful example of how well Sauternes can age at Chateau Doisy Daëne.

A beautiful example of how well Sauternes can age at Chateau Doisy Daëne.

Frosé with Bordeaux Clairet - perfect summer drinking

Frosé with Bordeaux Clairet – perfect summer drinking

And for something completely different Lactilium Vodka from milk by the team at Chateau Gruaud Larose.

And for something completely different Lactilium Vodka made from milk, by the team at Chateau Gruaud Larose.

A year of food: wine goes with food goes with wine and I have been lucky enough to experience some wonderful meals in some wonderful settings. Some meals have been haute cuisine, others a simple vineyard lunch, even wine dinners in the tropics. All have served as research for my next book ‘The Drinking Woman’s Diet’,  which will be published in 2017, exploring how to stay healthy whilst drinking for a living.

Anniversary celebrations at Chateau Biac

Anniversary celebrations at Chateau Biac

Sunset Croquet at chateau Phelan segur

Sunset Croquet at Château Phelan Segur

Ready for dinner at Château Montrose

Ready for dinner at Château Montrose

A picnic basket ready for lunch on the terrace at Chateau Petit Village in Pomerol

A picnic basket ready for lunch on the terrace at Chateau Petit Village in Pomerol

A vineyard lunch at Chateau Guibeau

A vineyard lunch at Chateau Guibeau

Putting Bordeaux tutors to work on practical food and wine pairing during their accreditation.

Putting Bordeaux Tutors to work on practical food and wine pairing during their accreditation.

An after lunch glass of Chateau Sigalas Ribaud at the Belles Perdrix restaurant at Château Troplong Mondot that won it's 1st Michelin star in 2016.

An after lunch glass of Chateau Sigalas Ribaud at the Belles Perdrix restaurant at Château Troplong Mondot. They won their 1st Michelin star in 2016.

Lunch at the Chateau Haut Brion restaurant, Le Clarence in Paris

Enjoying lunch at the Chateau Haut Brion restaurant, Le Clarence, in Paris

Informal dining in a formal setting at Chateau Pichon Baron

Informal dining in a formal setting at Chateau Pichon Baron

from healthy

from healthy

A less healthy breakfast

to a less healthy breakfast

Settling for a happy medium

Settling for a happy medium

Healthy can be delicious at Viva Mayr

Healthy can be delicious – much needed detox at Viva Mayr in August.

Post cure retox!

Post cure retox!

A year of teaching: wonderful opportunities to share my experience and knowledge of Bordeaux to the East, the West and of course in Bordeaux, with more successful Accredited Bordeaux Tutor candidates. I continue to learn just as much from their knowledge of other wine regions as I share with them the latest from Bordeaux. It’s been fun doing video tastings too, especially the live tastings with the Cru Bourgeois to the US.

The beautiful view over Lake Geneva was a bit of a distraction at Glion Hotel School

The beautiful view over Lake Geneva was a bit of a distraction at Glion Hotel School

Explaining the particularities of Sweet Bordeaux at the Bordeaux Wine School

Explaining the Bordeaux wines at the Bordeaux Wine School

The future of Hong kong wine service with students at the Hotel and Tourism Institute of Hong Kong.

The future of Hong Kong wine service with students at the Hotel and Tourism Institute of Hong Kong.

The latest Bordeaux Tutor Accreditation at Chateau La Louviere

The latest 2016 Bordeaux Tutor Accreditation at Chateau La Louviere

Teaching sales team from Southern Wines and Spirits in California.

Teaching sales team from Southern Wines and Spirits in California.

Medoc masterclass with Swires Group service team at Upper House Hotel in Hong Kong.

Medoc Masterclass with Swires Group service team at Upper House Hotel in Hong Kong.

Wine, Women and clothes: Bordeaux bootcamp tasting at Susan Graf Ltd.

Wine, Women and clothes: Bordeaux Bootcamp tasting at Susan Graf Ltd.

A year of writing: for those of you who follow this Blog I’ve shared some of the news from Bordeaux and things I’ve learnt and enjoyed on my travels. For those who don’t please join us, or follow me on twitter, instagram or the Insider Tasting Facebook page.

I also contributed to other blogs, including the Great Wine Capitals blog, profiling the Bordeaux Best of Wine Tourism winners but it’s also an opportunity to discover other leaders in wine tourism across the globe – more of which below.

I updated my book Bordeaux Bootcamp, the Insider Tasting guide to getting to grips with  Bordeaux basics, with the latest facts and figures and I’m now working on the final draft of The Drinking Woman’s Diet, reuniting my two passions of Wine and Wellbeing explaining how the two are not mutually exclusive. It will be in print in 2017.

Bordeaux Bootcamp, Second edition is now available on Amazon.

Bordeaux Bootcamp, the second edition is now available on Amazon.

And finally a year of touring: welcoming guests to Bordeaux. With more and more properties opening their doors my guests can now stay in their very own Bordeaux chateau, where I introduce them to the wine makers, movers and shakers, experiencing the Bordeaux vineyard lifestyle for themselves.

Chateau Le Pape, one of the many chateaux in Bordeaux you can make your own.

Chateau Le Pape, one of the chateaux in Bordeaux you can make your own.


Modern cellars at Chateau Pedesclaux

Modern cellars at Chateau Pedesclaux

and at Beau Sejour Becot

and at Beau Sejour Becot

The historical cellars at Chateau de Cerons

historical cellars at Chateau de Cérons

A new take on an ancient wine making technique at Château La Maison Blanche

A new take on an ancient wine making technique at Château La Maison Blanche

Time for a tasting at Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte

Time for a tasting at Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte

Francois Despagne gets closer to the terroir at Chateau Grand Corbin Despagne

Francois Despagne gets closer to the terroir at Chateau Grand Corbin Despagne

Flowering of the 2016 vintage.

Flowering of the 2016 vintage.



The Sauvignon blanc at Chateau Olivier - some of the first grapes to be picked in 2016.

The Sauvignon blanc at Chateau Olivier – some of the first grapes to be picked in 2016.

Hand sorting the bunches of 2016 Merlot at Chateau Villemaurine in Saint Emilion

Hand sorting the bunches of 2016 Merlot at Chateau Villemaurine in Saint Emilion

Some hidden treasures : The vaulted well dating back to the Merovingian period at Chateau Coutet in Saint Emilion

Some hidden treasures : The vaulted Merovingian well at Chateau Coutet in Saint Emilion


Alexandre de Bethmann shares another secret - the ice house at Chateau Olivier.

Alexandre de Bethmann shares another secret – the ice house at Chateau Olivier.

An itimate Cru Bourgeois taking lunch for Bordeaux tutors at Château Peyrabon.

An itimate Cru Bourgeois tasting lunch for Bordeaux tutors at Château Peyrabon.

Next year? More of the same I hope but also some new destinations and different experiences. Already on the itinerary are: tours in the Rhone and Provence, a distillery tour in Scotland, seminars and master classes in Switzerland, the UK, Hong Kong and the annual coast-to-coast US Road-show with an appearance at the Women for Wine Sense conference in the Finger Lakes. Lots of opportunities to for you to join me with and new destinations you might like to add to your future wish list?

The new Cité du Vin in Bordeaux - for your 2017 to do list. Credit Arnaud Bertrande

The new Cité du Vin in Bordeaux – for your 2017 to do list.
Credit: Arnaud Bertrande

I look forward to welcoming those of you coming back to Bordeaux in 2017 and some of you for the first time, or to sharing Bordeaux with you in classrooms or conferences across the globe.

Future projects include corporate and wine and wellness retreats amongst the vines and I’m excited to be working on an International Wine Tourism project sharing some of the best from other leading wine producing countries, more of which to follow.

Wine and Wellness - it's all about the balance!

Wine and Wellness – it’s all about the balance!

Please contact me for more information or stay tuned to the blog, I’ll be sharing my progress.

Thank you to everyone who has joined me this year, if you haven’t please do so in 2017, it will be a busy year with many opportunities for us to meet up, I hope to see you.

Happy New Year!

A little bit of Bordeaux in the heart of Napa

Comparisons between Bordeaux and Napa are inevitable, they both enjoy a reputation for excellence, especially for the expression of Cabernet Sauvignon and the exchange of wine makers and techniques between the two regions seems to be making the distance between the two a lot shorter.

There’s nothing new about transatlantic relationships such as Opus One with Mouton and Mondavi or Christian Moueix with Dominus. And it continues; ex Chateau Margaux wine maker, Philippe Bascaules, has been making wonderfully elegant wines at Inglenook for the last few vintages, Chanel (owners of Rauzan Segla and Canon here in Bordeaux) recently acquired Saint Supery and Melanie and Alfred Tesseron of Pontet Canet, have great plans for the Robin Williams estate.

Chateau Latour owners, Groupe Artemis, joined this select transatlantic club in 2013, buying The Eisele vineyard from the Araujo family, adding another name to their wine portfolio, which includes Château Grillet in the Rhone and Domaine d’Eugenie in Burgundy.

Eisele has a long history; first planted with Zinfandel and Riesling vines back in the 1880s, it has been dedicated to Cabernet Sauvignon for the last fifty years.

Situated on an alluvial fan at the base of the Palisades Mountain, the property is divided by two, mostly dry, riverbeds that have deposited big pebbles giving great drainage, a reminder of the home terroir in Pauillac perhaps? Cool air brought by Northwesterly breezes from the Chalk Hill Gap sinks into these valleys giving the fresh microclimate that determines the concentrated elegance of these wines.

The pebbles in the dry river bed

The pebbles in the dry river bed

The property has a history generously sprinkled with the famous names of Napa. Although Jackson G. Randall and Charles Nathan Pickett, planted the first vines and they remained in the Pickett family until the Second World War, it was Milton and Barbara Eisele that gave their name to the vineyard in their 60s. Paul Draper of Ridge Vineyards produced the first Eisele Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon starting the story of Cabernet at Eisele.

Conn Creek Winery produced the second vineyard-designated Eisele Cabernet in 1974, and from 1975 to 1991, Joseph Phelps continued the tradition, of producing excellent Cabernets from the Eisele Vineyard. In 1991 the vineyard produced its first Estate Cabernet Sauvignon alongside the final Phelps bottling from the property.

It was Daphne and Bart Araujo, who purchased the vineyard in 1990, that introduced winemaking, building a winery, including a 1km long tunnel through the mountainside to barrel age the wine. The tunnel, which links two parts of the vineyard, has to be air conditioned due to the hot subsoil of the region – we’re not far from the hot springs of Calistoga here remember.

The long tunnel barrel aging cellar

The long tunnel barrel aging cellar

Their 23-year tenure wasn’t just about the wine making; the Araujos introduced organic farming in 1998 and pioneered biodynamics in Napa becoming certified in 2002. It wasn’t just about Cabernet either; in 1990 they identified a small number of Syrah vines within a Cabernet block dating from 1978 and made a Syrah varietal and they planted Sauvignon Blanc on a cooler east-facing slope.

So has anything changed since the Groupe Artemis acquired the vineyard in 2013? Well they took their time, very aware of the prestigious and successful reputation of the vineyard. In2014, Hélène Mingot was appointed technical director, although she modestly calls herself the stewardess of the vineyard on her twitter account. Having worked with Stephane de Deronencourt in Bordeaux and in Napa she is very attuned to the environmental impact of vine growing.

Commitment to environmentally sensitive development is pretty obvious right down to the welcome clucking from the chickens in the beautiful grounds and herb garden for the biodynamic preparations. As well as the 500 ancient olive trees that produce organic olive oil – all part of biodiversity, perfect for Hélène given her previous experience as an olive taster in Italy!

Napa is known for the great complexity of its terroir, with over 100 different soil types in an area that is 5 miles wide and 30 miles long – smaller than the Médoc. With a desire to better understand and express these variations, the 38 acres are divided into 13 blocks and over 40 sub-blocks, based on soil and subsoil in a very similar approach to that seen at Latour.

The map of the plots that make up the Eisele Vineyard

The map of the plots that make up the Eisele Vineyard

There are just four labels for a total of about 5000 cases: 1500 cases of the Grand Vin, 300 cases of Syrah and 2500 cases of the ‘Second Wine’ Altagracia, and some Sauvignon Blanc. One change has been the oak treatment for the wines, they still use 100% new oak for the first wine but the barrels have a lighter toast than previously, sourced from 6 different French coopers with 80% new oak for the second wine and 50% for the Syrah.

Three quarters of the 38-acre Eisele Vineyard are dedicated to Cabernet Sauvignon and the other components of the Bordeaux blend: Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot for the Grand vin.

The ‘second wine’ is called Altagracia, also a Bordeaux-style blend mainly from the Eastern parcels of the Eisele Vineyard, but complemented by fruit sourced from other Napa Valley vineyards including some Malbec – a wine more accessible in style when young.

The Syrah, originally made from those vines identified in that plot of Cabernet back in the early 90s, now comes from new plantings sometimes co-fermented with Vigonier in the traditional Rhone style – a nod perhaps to Chateau Grillet, also in the groups’ portfolio.

The Sauvignon Blanc is simply delicious, served to us after the red in the underground, very chilly, tasting room at the heart of the estate. And the blend of 60% Sauvignon Musqué (the first time I think I have knowingly tasted this Sauvignon clone) with Sauvignon Blanc has the wonderful tropical flavours added to the super fresh Sauvignon Blanc. Barrel ageing on the lees, as of the 2013 vintage, just adds to the depth.

Tasting at Eisele

Tasting at Eisele

The most, obvious change is the recent change of name, (well less of a change and more of a ‘back to the future’ moment), using simply ‘Eisele Vineyard Estate’ for The ‘Grand Vin’ as of the release of the 2013 vintage this year; a reflection of the importance attached to the land or terroir. The names of the Eisele Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc and Altagracia have not changed.

The new Eisele Label

The new Eisele Label

I was stunned by the elegance of these wines. Having often struggled with the power of Cabernets from Napa in the past, these wines struck me as having the perfect blend of old and new world. The vines growing in these dry, rocky soils produce very small berries of thick-skinned, intensely flavoured grapes – again a parallel with Pauillac.

The wines develop increased complexity with age; friends were kind enough to serve me a 2004 a few days after my visit that clearly showed this. However I feel the vintages under the new ownership definitely show more of old world elegance.

Precision, texture, elegance and consistency are terms historically used to describe the wines from Eisele, terms not dissimilar for those used to describe Chateau Latour. The property continues to be in safe hands.


Pride and passion in South Africa

After just a few days in South Africa I’m hardly in a position to start drawing definitive conclusions about the wine industry there but several things really marked my recent visit: the pride the people have in their country, their industry and their wines, their desire to establish South African wine on its own quality merits, not as a ‘cheaper new world option’ and the dynamism and attention to detail that seem to link it all together.

We frequently heard: ‘I don’t know why people insist on calling us a new world wine region, we’ve being doing this for over 350 years’. South African wine was reintroduced to the world wine stage in 1994 after decades of isolation from international markets. Abandoning quotas has opened up new land; especially higher, cooler land. That, along with a new generation (not always young!) of highly educated winemakers with international experience that shines through in the quality of the wines.

The other theme that came through was a frustration at being considered a source of cheap wines, they have long been relegated into an ‘affordable’ category. If what I tasted was anything to go by, now is the time to sit up and take notice of these wines that hit well above their price point.

South Africa offers a fabulous range of wines and although the national vineyard is just smaller than Bordeaux, at almost 100 000 ha, the diversity of wines on offer from the different terroirs, topography and varietals is impressive. Everywhere you look there are wonderful views of mountains, the altitude that gives a freshness and elegance to wines. As if to prove the point we had two very chilly days whilst we were there.

You can find red, white, sweet, dry, sparkling, port, sherry and brandy – you name it they make it, unharnessed by European legislation. There is an almost 50:50 split between red and white varietals, Chenin Blanc dominates white planting and the like it loath it Pinotage, still just about dominates the reds.

Perhaps the most spectacular visit was to Delaire Graff, the brainchild of London diamantaire Laurence Graff. His link to South Africa and its diamonds, will come as no surprise but he has taken this one step further by buying the Delaire winery in Stellenbosch; 20 ha of red and white grapes producing a range of wines for all purses including South Africa’s most expensive Cabernet, the Delaire Laurence Graff Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon retailing at around R 20 000 (approx. €US 1 400) per bottle. This is wine tourism at its most luxurious; a spectacular tasting room, 2 top restaurants, a handful of private villas for rent amongst the vines and a world class African art collection. Unsurprisingly, Delaire Graff was voted global winner for Art & Culture in this year’s Best of Wine tourism awards.

The entrance to the cellars at Delaire Graff

The entrance to the cellars at Delaire Graff

Both the winery and hotel are spectacular showcases for the country, its art and wine, as well as the diamonds of course. My first ever visit to a winery with a diamond shop! As the diamond expert said (and yes I did go in for a peek) ‘It’s so nice that people come here for a celebration and can take away a little souvenir’. Usually it’s a bottle but I guess diamonds are a lot easier to get into carry-on! I loved their Méthode Cap Classique (MCC, their Méthode Traditionnel) named Sunrise after the canary diamond. I came away with the bottled version.

The Spectacular view from Dealaire Graff

The Spectacular view from Delaire Graff

Even if you are not that familiar with South African wine you may have heard of Stellenbosch and neighbouring Franschhoek. Franschhoek means French Quarter, which takes its name from some of the first French immigrants. (The Dutch were the first to import vines in the 1650s).

The French influence still continues today, The Glenelly Estate was purchased by May-Eliane de Lencquesaing 13 years ago. The old fruit farm is now a vineyard of 60 ha producing mainly Bordeaux blends (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Petit Verdot) inspired by the wines she brought over from Chateau Pichon Comtesse. The ultra modern cellar juts out from the mountainside and gives winemakers Luke O’Cuinneagain and Jerome Likwa the perfect conditions to aim for the Bordeaux elegance that Mme de Lencquesaing is accustomed to. Gravity feed, picking into crates, French oak barrels. They do a great job from such young vines (an average of 9 years old), the Bordeaux blends are complimented by lovely fresh Syrah. There is also a small (10%) production of elegant Chardonnay.

The tasting line up at Glenelly

The tasting line up at Glenelly

Their wine sales are export driven, which seems to be the theme for the whole of the South Africa as sales to export are increasing year on year and now account for about 60%. The Lady May is aged in 100% new French oak and the Chardonnay is barrel fermented in 500l barrels with no malo, then aged for 10 months with no battonage (lees stirring). The more affordable Glass Collection, named after Madame’s passion for glass, has a subtler oak approach; a very approachable range despite its youth. According to assistant winemaker Jerome, 2015 is their 1st perfect year so things look great for the future.

Familiar French oak barrels at Glenelly

Familiar French oak barrels at Glenelly

Women are not strangers to the South African wine scene. If you can manage to tie her down, Rianie Strydom is a successful example. Jancis Robinson recently named Rianie as one of the worlds leading women wine makers. I was lucky enough to meet her in 2010 in the Napa Valley at the Wine Entre Femmes event bringing together women wine makers from Bordeaux and Napa with a few special guests; including Rianie.

She has been making wines at Haskell since 2005 after American Preston Haskell invested there. Before that, she was already an award winning wine maker at Morgenhof, winning Decanter Best New World Red with her 2001 vintage.

Chardonnay from Dombeya and Haskell

Chardonnay from Dombeya and Haskell

Wine making experience in Burgundy and Bordeaux has given her an elegant focus, which clearly shows in the wines. Previously known as Dombeya, the 23ha property now produces wines under both labels.

On the diverse Helderberg slopes the names of the wines are evocative of their origins, showing the importance Rianie pays to the soils. The plots (blocks) are small, a clear recogntion of the complexity of the terroir and the opportunity it gives for micro expression and diversity of the wines. The Aeon Syrah is from old soils; Haskell Pillars 2011 is from a sandy loam ex horse paddock guarded by 3 pillars.  Haskell II is a blend of the 2 varietals Cab and Syrah and IV unsurprising from 4: Cabernet Sauvignon (and occasionally cabernet Franc), Merlot, Petit Verdot and Shiraz. She feels the Petit Verdot brings earlier drinking to the wine. The beautiful Haskell Anvil Chardonnay takes its name from the shape of the plot it comes from, ageing in 2nd year old barrels keeping its fresh European style – very much a signature of all her wines. The Dombeya range is more varietal led with the Sauvignon Blanc coming from cooler terroir, alongside the Chardonnay, Merlot, Shiraz and the Fenix blend.

Rianie for the Cape Winemakers Guild

Rianie for the Cape Winemakers Guild

Rianie is one of only two ladies in the 46 members Cape Winemakers Guild, quite an honour. It’s an invitation only association, where top Cape winemakers, are asked to create a unique cuvee for sale by auction, the proceeds going to educational development in the wine lands.

Trying to catch Rianie standing still at Haskell - impossible!

Trying to catch Rianie standing still at Haskell – impossible!

For the Strydoms wine is a family affair; Rianie’s husband Louis is the winemaker & MD for the Ernie Els winery just around the corner. This is altogether a bigger affair.  Ernie is a famous name for golfers and the 75 ha estate has 45ha planted under vine but the range is large, complimented with grapes and wine bought in to add to the diverse offer. It’s an interesting contrast from Rianie’s small Haskell winery to Ernie Els’ slick operation; the wines have quite a different focus too.

Louis Strydom for Erni Els

Louis Strydom for Ernie Els

The Big easy range does what is says on the label; easy drinking affordable wines from a range of origins each chosen for the best expression of the single varietals in red, white and rosé. (They carry the same name as a very good restaurant they own in Stellenbosch). I particularly liked the Big Easy Red Rhone blend, fresh with low tannins & lots of fruit retailing at R125, a perfect summer red, serve chilled. The whites are brought in from the Darling region as Louis feels his vineyard is too hot for whites. He explained how varietal wines are often perceived as better quality in the home market compared to blends. It is difficult to explain a blend as premium wine in the local market. They offer blends at their two top levels: the Proprietor’s blend, (there are also proprietor’s varietals Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah) and the range culminates with the Ernie Els signature blend with an important Cabernet influence. He feels the local terroir gives a great expression to this varietal.

The husband and wife team also produce wine between them; The Strydom family vineyards but I get the feeling that Rianie is very much in the driving seat as far as wine making is concerned; the same elegance in these wines echoes that of the Haskell wines. The Strydom wines on are on Simonsberg and they clearly express where they come from. Soil variation is enormous and is expressed not just in style but again their names give them away. Rock Star is a Syrah grown on rocks, Rianie says that Syrah will grow everywhere here, and this is a Single vineyard where Rianie successfully aims to balance opulence against restraint. Hades takes it’s name from a plot where it is so rocky it’s hell to grow there and Rex, well because Cab is King, giving a tight, smoky minerality that will age beautifully. She has as much fun with the names as she does with the wine making. She also produces a Sauvignon Blanc called the Freshman, the 1st wine she produced under own name in 2010, In 2015 4500 bottles will be bottled and she is adding another wine to this range – watch this space. As if all that didn’t keep her busy enough she also consults and makes wine for a few friends – told you it was difficult to tie her down.

Rianie Rock Star

Rianie Rock Star

Rianie took me over to the other side of the valley for lunch to Jordan, another champion of hospitality as well as block-by-block vinification. Their delightful Sauvignon Blanc is grown on higher land, 410m above sea level enjoying a cooling breeze. The views were spectacular and when we called in at the weekend, despite a wedding in full swing they took the time to take us up through the vineyard to sample the different wines in the blocks they came from presenting us with the spectacular views that are such a signature of the region.

On safari with jordan

On safari with jordan

At Warwick a woman has also played a major role. Passionate Canadian, Norma Ratcliffe, put this family winery on the map as the 1st woman to make wine in South Africa.The feminine theme continues with the lady range (Pink Lady, White Lady, First Lady), the labels designed around an old marriage cup.

Part of the Warwick line up

Part of the Warwick line up

Her son Mike is now at the reins, bringing the property firmly into the 21st century with his marketing expertise putting these wines firmly on the world wine map. This is a great example of blending the new and the old. The estate was started in the 1700s and Mike is the 3rd Ratcliffe generation at the helm. He is very much at the forefront of putting SA wines on social media with accounts for Warwick, himself and their other property Vilafonte, that he owns with iconic US wine maker Zelma Long. At Warwick we tasted our best South African rosé; Pink Lady 100% Pintotage. It’s the best use for Pinotage according to Mike, which  doesn’t mean it’s easy; it leeches big time so it’s a challenge to get the delicate rosé colour that defines this wine reflecting the delicate aromas of roses and raspberries. Watermelon was the local descriptor.

Talking of local descriptors, do you know what a Guava smells like? It’s used as a descriptor often here, especially for the Sauvignon Blanc, where tropical fruit aromas seem to be the underlying signature. And the Whites from Warwick are simply spectacular, we loved The White Lady Chardonnay, from a high-density single vineyard. This is Simonsberg, the smallest and oldest appellation and the emphasis is on the freshness. They protect the whites from oxidation, preferring to roll the wines aging in barrels on the lees rather than stirring. When we say Bordeaux Blend we invariable think about Cab:Merlot but Warwick makes a white Bordeaux Blend too; a delicious Sauvignon Semillon blend called Professor Black. The story goes (and we do love a story) that the block is called after the Professor Black peaches previously grown on an orchard here. They in turn took their names from the professor of pomology (yes that is a science) at the University of Stellenbosch who developed a species of early ripening peaches for the export market. The wine is certainly a beautiful aromatic – not sure if I could detect peaches though.

Cabernet Franc seems to be gaining in popularity in the region, it’s freshness taking the ‘edge’ off Bordeaux blends of Cab Sauvignon and Merlot, Warwick was the 1st vineyard to grow Cabernet Franc in 70s and it produced the 1st single vineyard Cab Franc in 1986. I loved it. Mike feels it is very vintage sensitive, this was one of the rare times that vintage variation was readily discussed.

Cabernet Franc from Warwick

Cabernet Franc from Warwick

Stellenbosch is not the oldest wine making area in South Africa. Constantia or the ‘Vin de Constance’ has this claim to fame. It has a long history dating back to the 1680’s and has enjoyed historical popularity in Europe. Once a single vineyard it has now been divided into two: Groot and Klein Constantia divided between 2 brothers Groot (large) went to the oldest and Klein to the youngest son. Klein Constantia is currently undergoing a transformation thanks to recent investment by majority shareholder Zdenek Bakala and his partners including two Bordelais; Hubert de Bouard of Chateau Angelus in Saint Emilion and Bruno Prats, previous owner of Cos d’Estournel in Saint Estèphe.

For 100 years the estate produced no wine, it started again in 1986 under the then new owner Doogie Jooste. Sold to the current owners in 2011 current investment continues in the cellars and in the 19th century Cape Dutch manor house. 100m2 of solar panels now pump 500 kW into the system per sunny day.

The cellars at Klein Constantia

The cellars at Klein Constantia

Constantia ‘Vin de Constance’ is a sweet wine, that traditionally was made from a blend including Semillon and often botrytised. Now it is 100% Muscat de Frontignan grown as bush vines for sun exposure to maximise the drying and there is no botrytis. Dried on the vine they are hand picked in up to 25 batches. The raisins (that’s not my French spell check they really are raisins) are picked one by one, 1-5kgs per person. We tasted the 2014, harvested from end January until the end of April to keep the acidity as well as the sweetness. (165g sugar per litre, 14° alcohol, 6.8-7g acid). Fermentation in 60% new French oak with light toast stops naturally, then it ages for up to 4 years. Lightness and delicacy define the wines and they are easily recognisable thanks to their unique bottles. At lunch after our visit at the nearby Conservatory at Honhort cellars, we sprang for a half bottle of the 1992 Klein Constantia clearly marked Sauvignon Blanc Botrytis Noble Late Harvest.

The characteristic Kleine Constantia  bottles

The characteristic Klein Constantia bottles

Wine maker, Mathew Day, who was promoted from assistant to head winemaker upon the arrival of the new owners, seems even more passionate about the Sauvignon Blanc plantations on the highest slopes.  In 2005, a unique Sauvignon Blanc vineyard block called ‘The Perdeblok’ was released; it has great length and a saline minerality, influenced by the coastal breezes perhaps? Matt’s descriptor of this SB was G&Tish – perfect! As the years go by Matt is identifying smaller and smaller blocks each with an individual identity that allows him to improve and build on the wines’ complexity. Here again is this intimate understanding and passion for the terroir that we saw in all the Cape vineyards we visited. For example the Block 371, a natural ferment with a creamy mid palate, despite oak fermentation and ageing there is no oak dominance and again that savoury finish.

Excellent Sauvignon Blanc from Klein Constantia

Excellent Sauvignon Blanc from Klein Constantia

Matt’s international wine making experience includes time in Sancerre, the home of Sauvignon Blanc, with Pascal JOLIVET. They have collaborated here at Klein Constantia making Metis; a selected block of SB, natural ferment, aged on the lees, again, no racking, no stirring in barrels, just rolling with thicker and wider staves – it’s all about reducing oxidation and keeping that fresh salinity he loves so much. If you need any more encouragement to try these wines Matt was named as one of the top 30 wine makers under 40 to watch by the Drinks Business in 2014.

These whites are not to be confused with their KC range made from grapes from further afield producing charming wines, less complex in style but benefiting from the same wine making expertise. They also make a MCC that we sipped high up in the vineyard next to the dam across the reservoir, admiring the view across the vineyards to False Bay. We were not the only ones enjoying the idyllic spot; a Sea Eagle was circling overhead, waiting for us to leave so he could fish in the reservoir for trout.

The view over the Kleine Constantia vineyards to the ocean

The view over the Klein Constantia vineyards to the ocean

A perfect end to a wonderful Cape Wine lands experience.

Follow the guide If you want to know more, Platter’s Wine Guide is the South African wine bible. A jury judges every year on what is great and good. There is also a web site. The 2016 edition was released when we were there to much fanfare. Browse through it and you will see that several of the wineries I mention above reached the coveted 5 star status for their wines in this latest edition: Delaire Graff, Ernie Els, Haskell, Klein Constantia and the White Lady Chardonnay 2014 from Warwick that also won white wine of the year. Just saying.

My conclusions: My brief visit just scratched the surface of the South African wine scene and I was blown away by the freshness and elegance of the whites in particular, and the fresh fruit driven expression of the Syrah with the lightness of touch it brings to the red blends, they are Bordeaux blends with a twist, a very distinctive South African twist.

The vineyard perhaps suffers from the complexity of the varietals and blends on offer, making it difficult to manage consumer expectations. The trend seems to be towards a more precise and intimate knowledge of their extremely varied terroir, making plot-by-plot precision viticulture commonplace, with plots getting smaller and more adventurous. This is leading to clearer regional identities expressed through precise varietal choices, a philosophy championed by producers such as Mike Ratcliffe and Rianie Strydom. It was explained to me that if you see Syrah on the bottle the winery is aiming at an elegant ‘old world expression‘ whereas if you see Shiraz on the label expect a bolder (Australian?) expression of the variety. But what is the South African expression? It is in the hands of these dynamic, enthusiastic and welcoming wine makers. Winemakers the world over have unbounded enthusiasm, but here there is also a pride in their country, not something you always find in the more blasé ‘old world’.

Every region has a cross to bear in terms of consumer (and sadly often trade) perceptions. Here it is a historical expectation that South African wines should be cheap – there is a price ceiling that even the most expensive fail to shatter. This is great value for the consumer, these terrific wines are still so very affordable, but disheartening for the producers. They are also tackling the devastating leaf roll virus.

I wish them higher prices to reward their investment in capital, education and passion. The good news is that, just like Bordeaux, the 2015 vintage is a great one, so keep an eye open for it on the shelves near you very soon.

White on white

If you are a regular reader, you’ll know from previous posts I am a fan of Bordeaux dry white and in particular those from the terroir of Sauternes.
It takes beautifully ripe berries affected by noble rot to create the spectacular sweet  wines from the south West Bordeaux of the Bordeaux vineyards. Some wine growers pounce on this fruit before the treasured fungus attacks it, and make lovely aromatic dry whites from them.

Sémillon is the signature grape of the sweet white wines of Bordeaux, making up 80% of the blends on average complemented by Sauvignon Blanc and sometimes a little Muscadelle. Although this obviously varies from estate to estate and vintage to vintage.

Normally the dry whites invert the ratio and are dominated by Sauvignon, But not always.I have already mentioned La Semillante, the 100% dry Sémillon made by Laure de Lambert at Chateau Siglalas Rabaud in a previous post.

At the start of the 2015 harvest I interviewed her along with Jacques Lurton who, with his global experience of Sémillon, is acting as a consultant for the third year running on this wine.

The dry whites from Chateau Sigalas Rabaud with the 1er Cru Classé Sauternes

The dry whites from Chateau Sigalas Rabaud with the 1er Cru Classé Sauternes

Jacques owns and make the Islander Estate wines on Kangaroo Island in Australia, as well as in Bordeaux and the Loire. Jacques is part of the Lurton family, a Bordeaux wine dynasty. He studied and worked with Denis Dubourdieux, known as the ‘white wine pope’ of Bordeaux – having been at the forefront of innovation in white wine making for the last 20 years when these wines really started to shine.

The dry white harvest at Chateau Sigalas Rabaud

The dry white harvest at Chateau Sigalas Rabaud

You might enjoy the conversation between two of the new generation from old Bordeaux families about how they are facing some of the challenges. It’s a long video but I couldn’t bear to cut anything out; they talk about the Sauternes too of course. This is such a perfect example of the dynamism and openness that now characterises Bordeaux.

Click here to see the interview with Laure and Jacques. With many thanks to Graham Booker of Avalon Images.


Tasting Texas.

There’s nothing new about Texan wine. It was the first American state to cultivate grapes for wine, dating back to the 1600’s thanks to Spanish missionaries who planted grapes for altar wines, when they settled in the region. It was in the 1800s thanks to European settlers that the wineries really became established. As with other American wine regions, prohibition almost finished off the industry and it wasn’t until the 1970’s that grape growing and wine making started to make a come back.  At the time, the state was known for the sweet style of their wines. They are now shaking off this image. although the sweeter traditional wines still exist this is not the trend. In the 1970’s, there were only a handful of wineries; by the 80’s they were up to 40 odd and now there is a run away success with about 300 of which 60 are large enough to produce a large and commercially viable production. The industry contributes a massive 1.83 billion dollars to the state GDP.

The 2014 Texas vintage coming in.

The 2014 Texas vintage coming in.

The wines from the 70‘s were of low quality – that’s not my opinion but that of Sam Clark, Texan Wine specialist at Spec’s the leading Texan fine wine retailer who kindly introduced to a range of wines from the state.

Sam Clark,Texan wine buyer for Spec's

Sam Clark,Texan wine buyer for Spec’s

The land here was cheap in the 70’s compared to California. The central location, with resulting lower freight costs and the plentiful supply of water were both appealing characteristics to experienced winemakers from other regions. Little by little, thanks to help from both Californian and French specialists, the wineries have established their style, gaining a better understanding of their terroir and the appropriate grapes. When the wine revolution started here the grapes planted were the classic European varietals of Cabernet and Chardonnay. Now there is a move towards Tempranillo and Viogner, which enjoy the local microclimates.

It is not just about hot climate wines either. Yes, 2011 was a very hot vintage but the land where the best grapes are grown is the Hill country, a higher elevation means a cooler micro climate and better drying winds as it can be very humid in parts of Texas (There was almost constant torrential rain for the 3 days I was in Houston).

The 2012 was affected by hail, a regular problem apparently, so they too know all about vintage variation.

The Texan line-up

The Texan line-up

There are 5 main wine regions in Texas within which there are 8 AVA’s.

Texas Hill Country is home to most of the wineries. It is the largest AVA in Texas and the second largest in the USA and is also the centre of a booming wine tourism industry. The vineyards of Texas enjoy 1.5 million tourists a year.  The region is West of Austin and North of San Antonio spreading North of Fredericksburg to San Saba and West to Menard. Within the region there are the two oldest AVAs; Bell Mountain the first to be established in the state and Fredericksburg. The region is dominated by high limestone hills dissected by steep creeks carved by big beautiful rivers. The high elevation gives cooler growing conditions. The vines are spread amongst 70 wineries, many of which welcome visitors to wine bars and restaurants and there are 300 B & Bs in the region that testify to it’s growing popularity as a tourist destination.

The Texas High Plains or Panhandle in the region of Lubbock is the second largest with (and the third largest in the US). The area used to be dominated by cotton growing. The jet stream that sweeps across the area from Washington and Oregon gives a cooler microclimate that keeps the region relatively disease free. It is the most successful region with grapes enjoying long hot dry summer days but with cool nights due to the high elevation 3,400ft above sea level on flat plateau. This gives a signature freshness and acidity, which takes many (including me) by surprise given the reputation Texas has for hot sunny weather.

North Texas has over 75 wineries and about 370 acres of vines with a range of soils This includes Texoma along the Texas Oklahoma border.

South East Texas along the Gulf coast includes the Texas Gulf coast, East Texas, and Bryan Texas.

This leaves Western Texas with it’s dry climate and fertile soils and mild winters over 1 200 acres. There are only 7 wineries here but it includes the oldest, Val Verdre, that has been in operation since the 1880’s. Here are the AVAs Escondido Valley in Pecos County and the Texas Davis Mountains and the Mesilla Valley at the far Western tip of the Texan border North and West of El Paso.

Sam introduced me to a range of 7 wines; 2 dry whites 1 rosé and 3 reds.

All the wines impressed me with their elegance, freshness and balance, I admit I was expecting blockbusters edged with sweetness and I was pleasantly surprised, much to the delight of Sam!

The first wines I tasted were whites – not what I was expecting, I was particularly impressed by the aromatic, exotic fruit and floral freshness of an elegant Viognier 2013 showing none of the weight that warmer climate Viogniers sometimes have. Stainless steel fermented from McPherson, a winery that produces 18-20 different wines on the high plains in and around the town of Lubbock, many of which are sold in their restaurant and bar. Bottled with a screw cap and at a $12 retail price this is an accessible wine in every sense of the term and hits way above its price point in terms of quality. Some of the grapes in this blend come from California.

If you want a complete Texas wine experience look for Texas on the bottle. This sounds obvious but ensures that at least 75% of the grapes in the bottle will have been sourced in Texas as well as the wine being made there. It’s all about the price. If you are paying $20 or more you can be pretty sure this is what you are getting.

The Duchman family make a point of using 100% Texan grapes, I tried their Vermentino, a grape more often associated with southern Italy. Used to hot climates, it seemed to thrive in the hot conditions in 2011 helped by it’s position on the cooler high plains. Very concentrated and aromatic, it retained its citrus character.

 Another surprise, a rosé, and not a sweet one. It’s pink bubble gum colour was misleading. ‘Les Copains’ as it’s name implies, is typical Southern France blend of Cinsault, Mourvedre and Viognier again from the cellars of McPherson. With less than one 1g of residual sugar in the 2013 vintage, it is once again a surprisingly fresh and fruity wine retailing at $11.

That misleading bubblegum pink.

That misleading bubblegum pink.

And for the reds: The Reserve Merlot from Becker vineyards in 2012 was more in the style of a new world merlot, ripe with a smoky mocha nose and medium intensity, already showing some signs of evolution. The acidity belies it’s almost 15° alcohol – the perfect foil for those Texan short ribs.

The Pedernales 2011 was perhaps more what I was expecting. This wine packs a punch the GSM (Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre – love the way they abbreviate everything over here) had a classic southern Rhone nose, beautiful sweet fruit on the attack with well balanced acidity and an elegant fresh fruit finish.

 And I couldn’t leave without trying a Cabernet. The Llano Cellar Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon comes in at less than 13° alcohol. It is complimented by a little Sangiovese, all the grapes are Texan, sourced mainly from the High Plains. Despite the low alcohol, this was probably the most reminiscent of a Californian Cabernet aged again in a mix of American and French oak, a ripe fruit nose and long sweet finish.

The show stealer of the reds for me was the Fall Creek Salt Lick Vineyard Tempranillo, again from Hill country Sam was saving the best until last; the terroir here is a mix of clay and loam over limestone giving a fresh subsoil. The ripe fruit is complimented by 15 months in a mix of French and American oak and an impressive red fruit attack with a mocha finish reminiscent of a classic Amarone. The Salt lick vineyards belong to the owners of the famous Salt Lick BBQ restaurant chain so I’ll leave you to imagine the perfect pairing for these wines.

Given this quality and diversity I’m not surprised that Texas is the 5th largest wine producing US state and continues to grow. There’s a healthy local market; Texas is the 4th largest consumer of wine in the US so unsurprisingly most of the wines remain in the state. The Texans are known for being proud of their state and it’s produce and they put their money where their mouth is.

The successes of the wines of Oregon and Washington throughout the American market, following in the footsteps of California, lead Texans to believe that their wines will be the next big thing. Their wine’s growing popularity is reflected by the recent successes in domestic wine competitions.

Seeing Texan vines for myself

Seeing Texan wines for myself

Spec’s currently sells 37 000 cases of Texan wines a year representing a turnover of about $4 M. October is Texas wine month at Specs, so if you’re in the Lone Star State next month it’s the perfect time to try them for yourself.

and drinking them!

and drinking them!

for more info visit or and if you have time to visit download the TX wine passport wine app.









The MW – Wine in higher definition

During our hours of travelling this summer, I overheard a conversation between my husband and sons about HD and 4K, otherwise known as Ultra-high definition.  They were asking why we settled for the former on our telly when we could have the latter. I inevitably looked for some way of linking the discussion to wine, tiresomely incapable as I was at the time of thinking of anything else. My one-track mind stemmed from waiting for my results of the MW exams I had taken earlier in June. The studies have been time consuming and have also taken their toll mentally and physically, to the extent that I have even questioned my motives for continuing with them.

Searching for greater definition

Searching for greater definition

It turns out a family boys’ chat about pixels ended up illuminating more than just our long car journey. Not only did I find a link to wine (I usually do) but also a true incentive to keep going. It reminded me that the search for greater definition and clarity, a guiding principle in today’s technology, and the certainty that it does exist, was precisely why I had embarked on the MW programme in the first place and why it was so important I kept going.

I enjoy wine, drink it, share it, talk about it (a lot, according to my family). I am even fortunate enough to make a living from it. I already get to experience it in HD and 3D. I visit vineyards, taste in cellars, work with producers, debate packaging options, write about it, talk to customers, drink with friends. I’d like to think I see all the way around the bottle by trying to understand the consumer facing the label as well as the winemaker and grape grower filling it. I knew before I joined the programme that I don’t just like wine. I love it. It enthralls me. Every good bottle, a little more. Great wine is nuanced, I find it intriguing. Loving wine makes it taste better.

and clarity

and clarity

So why the MW? The various answers I have come up with have been wholly dependent on the specific moment I’ve asked or been asked the question. I’ve seen it as a challenge when I’ve been lazy, a goal when I’ve been aimless, an academic puzzle when I’ve been facile, a discipline when I’ve needed focus. It has been all of these things as well as the gateway to great friendships. But of course none of those things are specific to wine – any demanding qualification could have done the same.

What I now see is that the MW study is taking wine from HD to 4K for me. It is giving me a whole lot more to love and in a great deal more detail.  It has actively encouraged me to explore and give greater definition to the nuances and subtleties of wine. Not only that but whilst increasing my reference points exponentially it also insists I then refine and reduce them to their essence in order to make them clearer, just as the huge number of pixels in 4K resolution provide more detail when scaled down to lower resolutions.

It has done this by stripping away all the artifice and insisting I look at the innate structure, minutely, and that I do it blind. Removing cues such as label and bottle shape as well as removing comforting, enhancing external influence of setting, time and place, may seem cold and calculating. I admit, I hated tasting everything blind at first. I have hated my many, merciless errors identifying variety, region and origin. But ‘blinding’ the wines has also allowed a new discipline to creep in and the wines to express themselves more clearly. It has actually allowed what’s in the glass to come into even clearer focus.

Focus on a sharper and brighter picture

Focus on a sharper and brighter picture

I continue to make inexcusable mistakes and sometimes dismiss or worse, overlook the nuances in order to come to a quick and easy conclusion. At times over the last couple of years I have had to reconsider everything I thought I knew about wine, as the bigger picture has become blurred and confused. I realise now this is all a necessary part of the process – a sort of finer tuning if you like before the picture can emerge sharper and brighter. HD is good but now I’ve experienced 4K I won’t settle for less. Thanks boys!

September 2014

Delicious Mauritius

When you think of a tropical island and what grows there, what springs to mind? Mangoes, pineapples, coconuts, papaya, vanilla….. Well, in Mauritius, there’s all of the above and so much more and local company Poivre d’Or uses them all. They produce a wonderful range of jams, spices, chutneys, honeys and teas, all beautiful packaged in locally produced, recycled packaging.

Copper pots

Copper pots ready for jam making


Sterilizing the mini jam pots for the hotels

Sterilizing the mini jam pots for the hotels

Everything is produced in the North of the island from all natural, local produce (no colouring agents, preservatives or flavour enhances here), complemented by specialities from other regions of the Indian Ocean. The kitchens are in an old converted hospital where a dedicated team of 30 local women hand chop, cook, decant and package up to  5000 jars a day from traditional recipes. They also produce candles perfumed with essential oils, teas, local sugars, salt and serving spoons made from Madagascan Zebu horn.

Hand labeling the pots

Hand labeling the pots

The company has been serving their traditional market, the islands luxury hotels, since 2002 but they now operate their own shops in the island so visitors can take a little local flavour home with them, in beautifully prepared gift boxes. They are also now available at  Le Marché du Moulin.

Rainbow spices ready for your Mauritian curry

Rainbow spices ready for your Mauritian curry

They also export to the USA, Germany and France so keep your eyes open for them at home.